Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
Ask Greil: June 2, 2023
You’ve mentioned your affection for doo-wop. My theory is that doo-wop retired to Jamaica in the early ‘60s and re-invented itself in the music of the Pioneers, the Slickers, the Melodians, etc. But although the Jamaican groups did more with it, when doo-wop arrived in apartheid South Africa, there were some interesting responses.
Flying Rock: South African Rock 1950-1962:
— ROBERT MITCHELL
You’re right, of course. It’s a great loop, to the point where you can hear doo-wop as true world music, that evanescent universal language. But as a loop, it’s a great lake with streams flowing into it. Doo-wop is the center.
The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is late doo-wop, and the first song on the Flying Rock album you sent passes the El Dorados’ “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)” on the same street. But the 1939 “Mbube,” by the South African group Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds (and into the mid ‘50s almost all the best and biggest doo-wop groups were named after birds), is the original of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Jamaican doo-wop, coming by way of New Orleans radio, was rougher and looser than East Coast or West Coast styles. It took a while, even with the early Wailers taking it up, for a distinctive style to emerge.
Doo-wop can be as varied, as complex, as bafflingly deep as any other music. As I hear it, Jamaican doo-wop begins to sing its song of freedom, freedom from clichés and genre, with dub. Slow it down, put more space in the sound, give everything time to breathe, until a breath almost feels like both the lead instrument and the lead idea: that’s what you can hear in what to me is the perfection of dub, Burning Spear’s Garvey’s Ghost. And out of that, or along side of it, is the heaven of the Melodians’ Pre-meditation. There’s nothing like it in doo-wop—unless you count Nolan Strong and the Diablos’ “The Wind.” Which you have to do.
And these are all great records.
Mr. Marcus - As a long time fan of music I find it somewhat distressing that as a critic you seem to lack objectivity when it comes to reviewing musician's work. To be direct and concise I am responding to your general dismissal of 15 years of Van Morrison's musical output. Yes, I am a fan of Morrison's work. However, the message that came across in reading your review was that Mr. Morrison failed to produce any work of any worth at all simply because it didn't meet your expectations. I ask, just what is it that you expect music to do for you? This is a very important question as it informs your viewpoint and therefore your response.
It seems to me to be so completely unprofessional. Without added context about your expectations your review seems arbitrary and without merit. You may as well by example have said: "Linda Ronstadt's Cancione De Mi Padre album doesn't have any worth because I don't understand Spanish." Never mind that it sold almost 3 million copies in the U.S.
Sincerely —LAWRENCE MONN
I don’t put on an album, open a book, or walk into a movie theater (well, lately, turn one on), with expectations, preconceived demands, let alone an objective standard any of those things must meet before I find it worthy. I don’t even understand the concept. Oh, I understand it intellectually. But not as real life.
I want to like anything I start to read, listen to, or watch. I want to be surprised. I want to be moved. I want to react on a level of querulousness: what’s going on, why am I reacting this way, what language is being spoken, and why does that tonal folk shift in the Irish TV performance of “St. Dominic’s Preview” make my stomach clench with pleasure, wonder, and fear every time?
Bob Dylan had a desert just as long as Van Morrison’s, maybe longer. Both kept at it, pounding their heads against the wall of their own failures, trying to find a way under or around or over the wall, even trying to build a house at its foot and live there as if it were a town. For both of them, when the time came, the wall crumbled, and they didn’t have to look back.
That’s how I see it. It’s not my fault that Van Morrison put out record after record year after year that didn’t move me, that I have nothing to say about. It’s not his fault either. But when he made The Healing Game I put it on like all the others and said, “Wow.” While he was making it, I’ll bet he did too.
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Hi Greil. Hope you are well. Last night I watched part of Trump’s CNN “town hall” and it made me so angry I recalled your writing about clenching your fists in rage at the Winterland Sex Pistols concert. But as I tried to cool down, I played a song that you also wrote about once: Swamp Dogg’s “The World Beyond.” Besides “Gimme Shelter” after Altamont, have you ever listened to a dark song after a dark event and have it and its music bring you release, pleasure, and reconnection to humanity? P.S. It’s interesting that this video answers Dogg’s question “What was a rock and roll band?” With a picture of the Stones. Thanks for everything and be well. —JEFF MAKOS
Thanks for this. “The World Beyond” does me in, every time. A dark song after a dark day? A dark song in dark times. (Though after the terrorist attacks in 2001 the only song I wanted to hear and could bear to hear was the New Pornographers’ “Letter from an Occupant,” which is one great shout of joy.) But Swamp Dogg breaks my heart, like every other future dystopia imagining, though the word’s too weak: every other imagined future where all that’s left are memories without referents, that mean nothing, that are not even stories. Like that scene in The Terminator, after the war, when in some underground hideout children sit in front of a burned-out TV set as if, if they sit there long enough, something will come on. Or the after the war library—just a shelf in a camp—in A Secret History of Time to Come by Robbie Macauley. And how wonderful that, after so many years, decades, after Total Destruction to Your Mind Jerry Williams still had so much more to give.
It takes me to other songs where the terrible future hasn’t happened yet, but a better future must come because the present is so intolerable. I can’t get out from under these songs; they take me down, fill me with longing and regret, make me smile and plunge me into despair, make me shake my head in wonder at the rightness of a change, the way a tiny shift in rhythm can rescue the music from torpor and bring it to full life in an instant. I mean Steely Dan’s “Any World (That I’m Welcome To),” and Guess Who’s “Share the Land,” which are the same song. But especially “Share the Land,” because Burton Cummings makes me believe him more than Donald Fagen makes me believe him, even though I believe “Any World” really did come out of a thinking person’s disaffection and I believe “Share the Land” came out of a, Hey, we need something contemporary, something now—what about all those communes, you know, that share-the-land shit? I love every note and breath in the song, but in the last minute when the instruments drop away, a loud chorus steps up to chant SHAKE YOUR HAND, SHARE THE LAND and Cummings just goes off, shouting in rhythm with every YES he can dig out of the song painting the picture— it’s as good a proof as there is that the creator’s motive and intention are meaningless in the face of what’s created. There’s a shine of cynicism left even as Donald Fagen tries to pin his heart on his sleeve; there’s only clean air around Guess Who as they calculate their next hit.
How and why is Warren Zevon not in the R&R HOF? —VINCENT
I don’t know; I have notions. He’s been eligible since 1995.
Though with his real world (i.e., actually heard) debut in 1976 he seemed completely immersed in the LA rock royalty milieu (Eagles, Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac), he never fit. His sensibility was noir. He wasn’t about happy endings. He seemed to carry self- destruction in his back pocket. As time went on and unlike his apparent peers he didn’t sell records, could no longer afford a band, was reduced at one point to a cassette only release—and also unlike his apparent peers never made a bad album until his last—he began to feel like a loser, Letterman fave status aside (for his Larry Sanders Show spot that’s how he’s presented). And as a supremely talented and different artist who didn’t sell he was also a threat to the aesthetic legitimacy of his richer apparent peers. He was too good. And really, “Excitable Boy’’ is lots of fun and just as awful as any of the Halloween movies in their worst moments. “He raped her and killed and built a cage with her bones”? Just let that sit on your mind for a moment.
So maybe he will live forever in the same dustbin where the Shangri-Las are waiting. I voted for him. I play the I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead set straight through all the time. I’d like to lock all the voters in a room and make them listen to Paul Muldoon’s “Sillyhow Stride” before they reject him again.
Hi Greil. On the “best two-chord song” question [5/12] I feel like you missed a layup with “Roadrunner.” Especially since there, unlike with “Tom Dooley,” say, having only two chords is kind of part of the point of the song. —EDWARD HUTCHINSON
Thanks. Anyone who doesn’t mention “Roadrunner” in any situation misses that layup. But I can point out that “Roadrunner” missed its own layup with its original John Cale-produced recording as opposed to the later Berserkley version, a.k.a. the holy grail.
So I was reading David Balzer's Curationism when I ran across this statement (on page 54): "Robust, well-read alternative weeklies, their exemplar in the Village Voice, popped up through the 1990s in every major urban centre, with staff writers able to make a living at the trade. Roger Ebert and Peter Travers followed the 1970s example of Pauline Kael in film criticism; Greil Marcus and Kurt Loder followed the 1970s example of Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh and Robert Christgau in music criticism..." Uh, didn't you, as reviews editor, give Lester Bangs his break at Rolling Stone, which was also before Dave Marsh started writing for Creem?
Thought you'd find this amusing. For the record, Balzer's artworld research seems more reliable. —MARK
The simple answer is that he doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s talking about. The real answer is more complex and more interesting.
First, unless it’s a typo, so-called alternative weeklies spread everywhere in the ’60s, not the ’90s.
Pauline Kael published some of her most enthralling, daring, and wide ranging work as far back as the mid ‘50s. To say that Roger Ebert and, of all people to name, Peter Travers, who despite his endless tenure at Rolling Stone has never made a contribution to movie criticism or, as far as I can tell, even tried to, “followed” Kael’s “‘70s example” is both dumb and parochial. By the mid ‘60s all sorts of would-be and extant film critics were reading Kael, celebrating or attacking her, as she attacked other critics, and by the time of her 1967 Bonnie and Clyde review there were many who were both sparked and guided by what she said and how she said it. Plus her impact was hardly limited to film. She was a protean inspiration for Bob Christgau, Lester Bangs, me, and so many more, in all fields. And Manny Farber, who started in the ’40s, was her equal both as a stylist (they couldn’t have been more different) and visionary.
As far as Kurt Loder and myself having “followed the ‘70s example” of Lester, Bob, and Dave Marsh, I can’t speak for Loder as a writer, but of the supposed examples he names (in repetitive phrasing: this person can’t write or think), Lester and Bob were writing, and influencing people, in the ’60s, along with countless other people with original perspectives, literary talent, and perspicacity: Paul Nelson, Tom Nolan, Paul Williams, Ellen Willis, Richard Meltzer, Richard Goldstein, Jane Scott, Jann Wenner, Jon Landau, Barry Gifford, Jim Miller, and more. Some of the people I was aware of, some I wasn’t. I wasn’t reading Bob’s “Secular Music” column in Esquire until he wrote me a comradely letter in 1969 because I didn’t know about it. Lester was writing in Rolling Stone before I was, but I didn’t really begin to take inspiration from him until I began editing him there, and even then I wasn’t aware of the ground-breaking, ground-clearing, radically original work he was doing in Creem (“Of Pop and Pies and Fun”). Because of Dave and then Lester Creem was an inspiration to many of us—you wanted to live up to the enthusiasm and thought bleeding out of the pages. But by then so many of us were affecting those who affected us. It was a community of writers, not followers.
I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on the Beatles AI tracks that have been popping up on the web. To me, they've mostly sounded inhuman and buggy, not quite up to the level of the Anthology versions of "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love." But then I stumbled across this version of Lana Del Rey's "Violets for Roses."
It's a jarring song for a male voice and doesn't sound like the Beatles, more just Paul, but for me it works, and surely would have been the highlight of McCartney II. Have you journeyed down this rabbit hole? What do you think of the future of AI music? Do you want to hear the Beatles sing "Love Sick" or "Jungleland"?
Finally, my sympathy for your troubles and loss. This world is so hard sometimes. Peace— JAY
Sounds like a high school imitation of LDR with accompaniment that reduces the melodic cadence to 1-2-3.
Robert Christgau once stated that one of the reasons the Beatles broke up was because “three of them believed they were geniuses and only one of them was” (guess which one). The concept of true genius itself is a hard one to grapple with honestly given how freely people seem to toss the term around. But as somebody who has sparingly used the word around the Beatles yourself, where do you locate the true genius of the Beatles if it can be called true genius? —BEN MERLISS
Freud said "We all know genius is incomprehensible." That struck me as right when I read it. No one knows what genius is, where it comes from, what it does, where it goes, so it might just as well not exist. I was once almost frozen by the simplicity and totality of "E=mc2." It didn't make sense to me that someone could actually think that. I asked my high-school physics teacher, Mr. Dolmatz, how Einstein could have possibly figured that out. "He was smart," he said. That seemed to answer the question.
Genius is a word I never use. But if there was a genius to the Beatles, it was the magic lamp it took all four of them rubbing to get the genie out. Without that, not even the one who was was. Except in the way John sings "I was..." in the last lines of "God." Genius is in the work, not the person.
Greil, loved your story about hearing "If You Could Read My Mind" after you and your wife fled that kooky inn. That's a song I've never tired of since first hearing it in middle school, and you captured its dream-like elusiveness. It somehow never led me to delve into Lightfoot, but what did was Tony Rice's collection of his Lightfoot covers, especially his version of "Shadows." (Available on YouTube Music.) After Lightfoot died, my friend Doug sent this long 2020 overview of him by Robbie Fulks, which you might enjoy though it reminded me what I both love and sometimes dread about them both. The part about Gordon's obsession with tuning is worth the deep dive. —VERN
Robbie Fulks refers to “the thousand verse” “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” His piece is its own version. And both worth it.
Since you’ve a fan of both thrillers and Percival Everett, what did you think of Dr. No? I thought it was brilliant and funny but lacked something compared to The Trees or Telephone or Erasure. Or, for that matter, Glyph which it’s something of a sequel to. — CHUCK
I thought it was a disappointing James Bond. (Though I missed the connection with Glyph.) I usually read Everett novels at least twice (I keep going back to Trees—the language is so rich and funny, the themes increasingly cruel and harsh), but had to pull myself through this one. For (to me) a relatively young writer, he’s in such a hurry, as if life is chasing him. Keeping up with him is a pleasure in its own right.